Mapping the Kumbh Mela

Interdisciplinary faculty and student research on a “Pop-up Mega City”

Business Insights from the Point of view of Infrastructure, Urbanization, and Finance – first thoughts

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The Brain Trust – Rahul, Jenny, Diana

23 Jan: Evening in India, morning in Boston.  By now the Harvard team is departing Prayag. The next big shahi snan is Paush Purnima on 27 Jan and we want to get out of the way of the naga sadhus…and lest we forget, classes start Jan 28.

Here are some first thoughts on business insights from our journey and how to uncover those insights in a setting of participant centered learning (HBS discussion classrooms).   (This is the summary I would have conveyed while all were assembled at Lakshmi Kutir camp, had I not departed early on 21 Jan).

Much of the Indian press has reported that Harvard is doing “a case study” [This is generally understood to be an HBS format for presenting information].  Some press even wraps all of our efforts into the descriptor “Harvard Business School.”   One of my objectives in preparing HBS teaching material will be to straighten out this misconception with respect to Harvard Mapping the Kumbh Mela and be a voice for Divinity, Urban Planning and Design, Public Health, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.   Think of me, business guy, as a distribution channel to a particular audience of content that really has Diana, Rahul, Greg, and 30 exciting students at the core.

I think about preparing teaching material that will draw out important insights that are not well covered elsewhere and are not obvious.  Additionally, I would like the material to lead to frameworks and take-home value that is re-useable many times in many situations, not just with respect to Mahakumbh in Allahabad (although if we collectively can help with future Melas, terrific).  

This means that I am intentionally NOT looking at the overall system of finance and funding here; the press covers that well.   I’m not particularly looking at entrepreneurship or markets or flows of services; the press and other academics cover that well. What else am I not looking at myself?  Life within the Akharas. The swamis, the gurus, the nagas.  Diana and her team are doing that original research. The metabolism of the Mela; the flows of people, water, electricity and the mapping of space.  That’s the domain of Rahul and his teams.  Water quality, ratio of pit toilets to eco-toilets (and the subset of functional eco-toilets); that plus first responder services is part of Public Health.

So what am I looking at?  A portion.  I’m focusing on this city in the context of a framework for investing in the sustainable, competitive cities of the future.  (My joint GSD HBS course here: Sustainable Cities).  My research seeks to provide practical solutions at the intersection of three colossal problem trends in the world: 1) Rapid urbanization – billions more souls are moving to cities; 2) worsening scarcity of key resources like clean water, electricity, access to transit, clean air and too much traffic and CO2; and 3) for the most part, governments are stuck and “political will” is not going to ride to the rescue.  So the private sector must have a role (and has opportunities).

The new cities being built on largely greenfield sites in emerging economies not only in South Asia but in the rest of Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America are the key to addressing these three trends. Not everyone is moving to Shanghai, New York, Mumbai, Johannesburg, or Sao Paolo.  Billions will move to Tier III cities like Allahabad…and to new open sites like that we saw below us in Prayag, north of the sacred Sangam and the intersection of the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the Saraswathi.

What am I thinking of for a lesson plan? This, so far. I’m interested in your comments.

  • Learning objective:  How the government and the non-government actors (in this case largely akharas) effectively organize land, transit, electricity, and commerce to serve a common goal.
  • Analytical skills to exercise:  Land  allocation.  Street layout. Other key utility layout like location of pontoon bridges.  Anticipation of population, mass transit nearby, and any constraints on water and electricity in the Kumbh Melas of 2025 and 2037.
  • Point/counterpoint for discussion:  Here is a (hypothetical) map of what the Ganga Goddess has provided us for riverbanks in 2025.  Would you start planning with akharas first, roads first, bridges first, Sangam first, or something else?  (We heard three different statements in our interviews).   As government, what aspects of roads, bridges, power, water would you self perform, bid out, or privatize?  As akharas and as entrepreneurs, given the two frames above how would you respond with your investments and plans?
  • Insights to uncover (we hope):  The role of strong central government vs weak in cities.  The impact of govt focusing on just three areas: land allocation, roads, power and letting non-govt actors handle all of the soft infrastructure. The tradeoffs in greenfield urban sites vs legacy sites.  Planning ahead to compete in a era of constrained resources (assuming that there will not be unlimited electricity in 2025 and the Akharas will have to compete on other than lights, noise, bells, and whistles…maybe even back to their own essence of education and spirituality)?

When we arrived I was thinking that the decision cycle for government planners would be measured in hours, where for most planners the decisions and feedback take years. I was wrong. The decision cycle is more than a decade; it’s 12 years. And planners start fresh, without incremental thinking about constraints or returns in an 18 – 24 month window.  This is a very pure pedagogical situation to seed a wide ranging discussion that still concludes with generalizable take-aways.

And you know what else? The Mahakumbhmela cycle of creation, sustenance, and destruction, repeated again and again, sounds to me a lot like Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.    I will have to check with Diana but maybe this is one of the realized insights from our all working together.

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Written by jdmacomber

January 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Posted in All, Business

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